Today’s Gospel passage reinterprets Isaiah’s prophecy in the first reading. The prophet Isaiah spoke on God’s behalf and said, “Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” (Isa. 40:3) The passive voice verb used in this statement is the typically deferential way that the Scriptures use to refer to God’s actions. Mark’s Gospel reinvented Isaiah’s prophecy, and used it to describe the ministry of John the Baptizer. The Gospel author wrote “A voice of one crying out in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” (Mk. 1:3) This was a command issued to those who heard the Baptizer’s preaching.
In the ancient world, an author’s ability to edit and reinterpret a passage from the Scriptures was considered to be a sign of scholarship and wisdom. Today, however, the Gospel author’s use of this Scriptural text raises some questions about the meaning of Isaiah’s prophetic utterance. In its original context, Isaiah’s prophecy described what God would do to make a straight highway in order to bring salvation to God’s People. In Mark’s Gospel, the reinterpreted prophecy was used as a call to repentance, admonishing those who heard the preaching of John the Baptizer to prepare a path for God’s approach.
Scripture scholars debate whether the “straight path” is work performed by God or by those who repent. Regardless of the agent responsible for making a straight path for God, the message remains essentially the same. It is a call to repentance, either to make a path for God or to be found on the path that God makes. There is a potential danger, however, in both of the alternate interpretations of these Scripture passages. Both interpretations can be understood as a call to repentance, but both can also be understood as an excuse not to repent.
When I was a Seminary student, a fellow student preached on the topic of John the Baptist at a daily Mass in the Seminary Chapel. He really got into character, as they say in the entertainment industry. He fulminated, raised his voice, shook his fist, and shouted at us to heed the Baptizer’s warnings about the destiny that awaits the unrepentant. At the end of that Mass, all of us were convinced of the omnipresence of sin. It was memorable. It was also an example of the possibility of being on a path the leads away from God.
Every person is fully capable of assessing what’s wrong with the world and the people in it. Each of us has a list of grievances about what we perceive to be injustice and tragedy. There is little effort required to point out the faults of others. John the Baptizer is, therefore, easy to understand. He preached against selfishness, lawlessness, and faithlessness; anyone can do the same. Much more difficult than identifying what’s wrong with the world and other people is the task of identifying what’s wrong with oneself. Lacking knowledge of one’s own shortcomings leads to interpreting a call to repentance as necessarily addressed to others, to those whom we blame for our misfortunes, or to those whose values systems conflict with our own.
The call to make a straight path for God and/or the call to be found on the path made by God can easily be used to condemn those who are the targets of our disapproval or dissatisfaction. In politics, this is called “passing the buck.” In religion, it’s called “passing judgment.” In no arena of life does it constitute a passing grade.
I wonder if the author of Mark’s Gospel chose to reinvent the prophecy from Isaiah in order to make us look at it with fresh eyes and a renewed mind. Are the two, apparently contradictory, interpretations intended to make us ask about the addressee of this call to repentance? Mark’s Gospel seems to be emphasizing, for our sake, the fact that the call to repentance is always addressed individually and only to the one who hears it.
It would be easy to excuse oneself from the obligation to repent based on God’s act of making a straight path. After all, if God is doing the work of salvation, why should one bother to repent? It would be equally easy to avoid repentance by making it an obligation only for those whom one finds annoying. The Gospel author points out that these two instances of “passing the buck” are faithless acts.
The prophet said, “Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” (Isa. 40:3) It is incumbent on the one who hears these words both to put herself or himself on the path made by God and to straighten the path in his or her own life.
If you can see injustice in the world, you are neither alone nor extraordinary. On the other hand, if you want to repair and heal the injustice in the world, you can do so only by repairing and healing the injustice in your own life.